It would, no doubt, repulse Marjory Stoneman Douglas to know that an unthinkable shooting at a high school bearing her moniker has sullied her good name.
But we can’t let that horror recast such a remarkable woman’s legacy—she was far too accomplished to sacrifice her name to the worst possible bad news.
Marjory Stoneman was born in 1890 to an entrepreneur father and a concert-violinist mother. A child of affluence, she attended Wellesley College, where she majored in English, became involved in the women’s suffrage movement and graduated in 1912.
Let’s put this into context: In 1910, of all the bachelor’s degrees earned by the tiny percentage of the population who was even able to attend college, only 23 percent were earned by women.
After graduating (and marrying, thus adding on the “Douglas”), Stoneman Douglas, at the ripe old age of 25, started writing for The Herald, the newspaper which would eventually become the Miami Herald, where her father had become the publisher.
From there she went on to serve in the American Red Cross in France, Belgium, Italy and the Balkans during World War I.
Upon her return, Stoneman Douglas got rid of the husband (though she kept his name) and began editing at The Herald.
There she progressed from assistant editor to writing editorials and eventually editing a literary column called “The Galley.’’
Another bit of context: Given journalism’s current terrible state of gender equity in the leadership of newsrooms and opinion sections, this would be impressive even today.
From there, Stoneman Douglas amassed countless prizes, awards and other honors for her short-story writing, novels, a play, nonfiction books and articles in support of her passion for conservation of the Florida Everglades and other natural habitats.
In a 1952 review of her book “Road to the Sun,” the New York Times critic Frank G. Slaughter said, “Marjory Stoneman Douglas knows South Florida and the Everglades intimately. ... Her genius, however, goes much deeper than the ability to evoke a particular setting. Her description of a region that is neither earth nor water will give the reader a sense of having visited the ‘Glades in person.”
She did far more than describe it well—Stoneman Douglas helped pass a state constitutional amendment to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up the Everglades. She also eventually helped secure multimillion-dollar state and federal grants to restore and expand the Everglades. These efforts earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.
When Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 at the age of 108, a longtime leader of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club told The New York Times: “The Everglades wouldn’t be there for us to try to continue to save if not for her work through the years.’’
Though Stoneman Douglas would be appalled at the violence that was visited upon her namesake school, she’d surely be proud of the way that students have organized and vowed to never let such a senseless act happen again.
It’s likely she’d also be impressed by the passionate advocacy of young leaders who traveled to Florida’s state capital to rally for gun control legislation. This includes the galvanizing spokespeople like Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland student whose emotional “BS call” captured the hearts of social media activists.
I’m taking the next quote far, far out of context, because a future in which children slaughtered other children in an institute of learning would have been inconceivable to Stoneman Douglas.
But I think this line from her delightful, slightly crotchety and very “straight talk” autobiography, “Voice of the River,” will energize those facing the long, uphill battle to prevent future school shootings against the pushback of those who say it’s too early to politicize a tragedy: “Some people don’t realize there are inevitable wars that just have to be fought. Pacifism isn’t always noble, and it isn’t always intelligent,” she wrote. “You have to stand up for some things in this world.”
It’s very easy to imagine that our country will lose interest in the topic of school shootings until the next one occurs, because this has been the pattern.
But maybe the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will channel their patron saint’s energy and tenacity, and reclaim her name and her legacy as a force for making big, important things happen.